At midseason, the Crimson Tide have the look of a team of destiny
Let’s see. Taxes are still a pain... check. Gas prices are still too high... check. The rain in Spain still falls mainly on the plain... check.
Annnnnnnd, Alabama is still atop the national polls... check.
In case you are wondering, this is the exact same opening line that I wrote to last year’s midseason report on the Alabama Crimson Tide. And guess what? Nothing has changed since then. Three hundred sixty-five days later and we are at the same point of national domination with the Tide. Oh sure, they went on to lose to Auburn last November, but by the second week in January we were crowning Nick Saban as one of the greatest head coaches in college football history because he had just earned the fifth national title in the last nine seasons for Alabama.
Are we heading there again in 2018? Not just yeah, but oh-hell-yeah. The Tide just can’t seem to be stopped. And I mean literally they can’t be stopped. This offense is the best we’ve seen from the Crimson Tide since Steadman Shealy was tearing through opposing defenses with a very vanilla wishbone-based ground assault and nearly zero through the air to the tune of 36 points per game.
Offensive MVP: QB Tua Tagovailoa
Oh c’mon, you can’t be surprised. This one is the most obvious offensive MVP choice in the history of college football. The Hawaiian Arm has raised the Tide offense to a new level. No longer is the running game the only win-or-lose factor. Tagovailoa is headed for a history-making season, leading the nation with an off-the-charts 258.40 pass efficiency rating, which at this point would shatter Baker Mayfield’s 2017 rating of 198.92. All told, Tagovailoa has thrown just 25 incompletions in six games and has 18 touchdowns vs. zero interceptions. My gawd.
Defensive MVP: DE Isaiah Buggs
This one was a little tough to call because Deionte Thompson leads the team in tackles with 36, Dylan Moses is a close second with 34, Mack Wilson is a preseason All-American, Shyheim Carter has two interceptions returned for touchdowns and Raekwon Davis is… well, Raekwon Davis. And even though Buggs has just eight unassisted tackles on the season, he also leads the team with 6.5 tackles for a loss and six sacks. So while a lot of attention has been heaped on Davis on the other side, Buggs has picked up his game.
Best Moment of the First Half: Jalen Hurts Taking Snaps in Game Five vs. Louisiana
The good news is that Hurts played his fifth game that day, meaning that redshirt rule would not take hold for the former SEC Offensive Player of the Year. And as we’ve seen with other backup QBs in other programs, it also means Hurts would not be transferring. Hurts is a wily veteran and will be leaned upon heavily at some point this season. Good to see he stuck it out.
Best Newcomer: Offensive Coordinator Mike Lockley
Granted, coach Locksley isn’t a “newcomer” per se, but in this his second year on the Tide staff he has gone from co-offensive coordinator to sole coordinator. And you can see the difference this season. According to their offensive efficiency metric, they score a 98.02, which is better than any team measured by ESPN Stats and Information since 2007. It’s hard to argue against a team that is averaging 56 points and 568 yards per game. Lockley’s play-calling has been brilliant, deftly relying on the pass more on first and second down than in any of the years of Saban’s tenure and scoring a touchdown on 48 percent of their drives. To this point the Tide offense has just eight three-and-outs.
Biggest Surprise: The Ease
The Tide have still won every game with so much ease that Tua Tagovailoa has yet to attempt a pass in the fourth quarter. So far that quarter has been nearly completely needless. In fact, Alabama has been outscored 42-34 in the final quarter of games this year. But look at the first half, where the Tide has outscored their six opponents by a ridiculous 238-34 margin. Get to the games early fans. By halftime you’ll be trekking back out to your tailgate in the parking lot.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Improvement in the running game
The Red Elephants have a dynamic passing game that is putting up big play after big play. But overlooked in all this is the fact that the running game isn’t the marquee breadwinner this year, even though top runners Najee Harris and Damien Harris average 6.8 and 7.1 yards per carry. There have only been two 100-yard games this season and both came against weak run-stopping teams in Arkansas State (Najee, 135 yards on 13 carries) and Arkansas (Damien, 111 on 15). But in the second half of the season they’ll need to lean on the running attack a bit more with LSU, Mississippi State, Auburn and likely Georgia coming up.
This is what the Crimson Tide will be exacting this November/December. Last year’s loss to Auburn which kept them out of the SEC title game and nearly eliminated them from making the College Football Playoff will be atoned this year. Make no mistake. And although Georgia owes them some payback for the overtime loss in last January’s national title game, the Tide will look to impose their will against a what is (relatively speaking) a weaker Bulldog defense, who had them bottled up for most of that game.
3. Better red zone defense
I’m really having to dig here to find something bad that the Tide needs to change. Going into the second half of their season, the Tide opponents have already converted 72 percent of their drives in the red zone, with 10 of their 18 visits coming through with touchdowns (and yes, most of these are second-half scores, but still). The Tide D would like to do a better job of stopping that, especially with the better offenses they’ll face this year still ahead. The first big test comes vs. Drew Lock and Missouri, who is 36th nationally, converting on 89 percent of their red zone visits.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Dec. 1 SEC Championship Game (Atlanta)
No doubt the Tide will be meeting Georgia in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta on the first Saturday of December. And the Crimson Tide will face another pretty good offense behind Jake Fromm and his new stable of running backs. As mentioned above, this isn’t as daunting of a junkyard dog defense, but it will have plenty of time for improvement before they face the Tide.
2. Nov. 24 Auburn
The last few weeks has shown that the Plainsmen are really a rather ordinary team, nothing to get in a twist worrying about for sure. But put an asterisk next to this one because you know how these rivalry games are, anything can happen once momentum takes over. Still, all things being equal, the Tide should roll.
3. Nov. 3 at LSU
This one looked a lot more daunting a few weeks ago, but with their loss to Florida and their struggle vs. Louisiana Tech has proven that the Tigers are pretty good, but not world-beaters. This one will take place in Death Valley so nothing is a given here.
4. Nov. 10 Mississippi State
Okay, don’t get all bent out of shape Bulldog fans, the only reason you are rated as an “easier” game is because the Auburn game is one of those kooky rivalry games where anything can (and usually does) happen and the LSU game is at Tiger Stadium. Otherwise, all things being equal, the Dogs are more treacherous than both those teams above them.
5. Oct. 13 Missouri
The Tigers certainly have the offense to give the Tide fits. But remember that this is a different animal on the Crimson side of the offenses. Look for Tua and the Tagalongs to outscore Mizzou with a 50-plus point output.
6. Oct. 20 at Tennessee
This will be the 101st meeting of the traditional "Third Saturday in October" game with the Volunteers. But this one is on very different footing as both programs are pointed in different directions. In fact, the largest margin of victory is 51 (a 51-0 win for Alabama in 1906). Expect that number to be in jeopardy here.
7. Nov. 17 The Citadel
The usual mid-November sacrificial lamb from the FCS that they started scheduling ever since the NCAA allowed a 12th game. Not what fans had in mind when that rule was passed but here we are. Name your score boys.
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.